Federal government agencies believe China is behind cyber attacks on Australian institutions, including hospitals and state-owned utilities, that have stepped up in recent months.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Friday that Australia had been the target of a cyber attacks by a foreign entity.
“We know it is a sophisticated state-based cyber actor because of the scale and nature of the targeting and the trade craft used,” Mr Morrison said on Friday morning.
“The Australian government is aware of and alert to the threat of cyber attacks.”
Limited details of the attack have been released. But Mr Morrison said it had been identified because it was on such a large scale, and had increased in recent months.
“There are many that have been targeted but, in terms of their success, that is not as significant,” he said.
According the Council on Foreign Relations, China, Russia and Iran are the top three states suspected of sponsoring cyber operations.
Asked directly on Friday if he believed China was behind the sustained attack, Mr Morrison refused to say.
“We are very confident that this is the actions of a state-based actor. We have not gone any further than that,” he said.
“I can’t control what speculation others might engage in on this issue or, frankly, any other. I have simply laid out the facts as we know them
and as we have disclosed today.”
But ABC television said later that government sources had confirmed the attacker was China, while Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings told The Australian it was “very clear” that the Asian giant was behind the cyber attack.
If true, it would add further friction between the two countries, which have fallen out over the origin of COVID-19, trade and most recently the sentencing to death of an Australian drug smuggler.
Australia’s security agencies are working closely with allies and partners to manage it.
“I spoke to [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson last night about a range of matters, including this one and there are a number of engagements with our allies overnight,” Mr Morrison said.
He also spoke to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese on Thursday night on the issue, as well as state and territory leaders.
“Cyber attacks are a real issue,” Mr Albanese said.
“What the evidence is, is that these attacks are expected to be more often.”
In May, a joint statement by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Cyber Security Centre said there had been “unacceptable malicious” cyber activity.
“Of particular concern are reports that malicious cyber actors are seeking to damage or impair the operation of hospitals, medical services and facilities, and crisis response organisations outside of Australia,” it said.
Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy.